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21 JULY, 2015

Neuroscientist Sam Harris Selects 12 Books Everyone Should Read

By:

From Bertrand Russell to the Buddha, or why you should spend a weekend reading the Qur’an.

On an excellent recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show — one of these nine podcasts for a fuller life — neuroscientist Sam Harris answered a listener’s question inquiring what books everyone should read. As a lover of notable reading lists and an ardent admirer of Harris’s mind and work, I was thrilled to hear his recommendations — but as each one rolled by, it brought with it an ebbing anticipatory anxiety that he too might fall prey to male intellectuals’ tendency to extoll almost exclusively the work of other male intellectuals. (Look no further than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reading list for evidence.) And indeed Harris did — the books he recommended on the show, however outstanding, were all by men.

I was perplexed, both because references throughout his own excellent books indicate that Harris reads far more widely than this unfortunate lapse of packaging makes it seem, and because he is the loving father of two small female humans who will go through life absorbing our culture’s messages about the value of women’s minds and voices. And since I believe that the best way to complain is to do something constructive, I reached out and asked him for an expanded version of his reading list that includes some of his favorite books by women. He kindly complied and offered a stimulating selection of twelve books to enrich any human life — here it is, beginning with the original eight from the show and Harris’s comments about some of them:

  1. The History of Western Philosophy (public library) by Bertrand Russell
  2. Bertrand Russell … is one of the great philosophers of his time… a remarkably clear thinker and writer… a great example of how English should be written and just a great voice to have in your head.

  3. Reasons and Persons (public library) by Derek Parfit
  4. Brilliant and written as though by an alien intelligence. A deeply strange book filled with thought experiments that bend your intuitions left and right. A truly strange and unique document, and incredibly insightful about morality and questions of identity.

  5. The Last Word (public library) by Thomas Nagel
  6. I’m a big fan of Thomas Nagel’s earlier work… He is a very fine writer — a very clear writer — and just as a style of communication … he’s worth going to school on.

  7. The Holy Qur’an (public library)
  8. Everyone should read the Holy Qur’an… Read it — it’s much shorter than the Bible; you can read it in a weekend, and you’ll be informed about the central doctrines of Islam in a way that you may not be, and it’s good to be informed, given how much influence these ideas have currently in our world.

  9. Superintelligence (public library) by Nick Bostrom
  10. The clearest book I’ve come across that makes the case that the so-called “control problem” — the problem of building human-level and beyond artificial intelligence that we can control, that we can know in advance will converge with our interests — is a truly difficult and important task, because we will end up building this stuff by happenstance if we simply keep going in the direction we’re headed. Unless we can solve this problem in advance and have good reason to believe that the machines we are building are benign and their behavior predictable — even when they exceed us in intelligence a thousand-, a million-, or a billion-fold — this is going to be a catastrophic intrusion into our lives that we may not survive.

  11. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (public library) by William Ian Miller
  12. The Flight of the Garuda: The Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (public library) by Keith Dowman
  13. I Am That (public library) by Nisargadatta Maharaj
  14. Infidel (public library) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  15. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion
  16. The Journalist and the Murderer (public library) by Janet Malcolm
  17. Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (public library) by Jean Hatzfeld

Complement with the reading lists of Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, and Alan Turing, then revisit Harris on the paradox of meditation and subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show here.

Top illustration by Marc Johns

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20 JULY, 2015

The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease

By:

How your memories impact your immune system, why moving is one of the most stressful life-events, and what your parents have to do with your predisposition to PTSD.

I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it. I found myself completely incapacitated to erect the pillars of my daily life — too cognitively foggy to read and write, too physically weak to work out or even meditate. The temporary disability soon elevated the assault on my mind and body to a new height of anguish: an intense experience of stress. Even as I consoled myself with Nabokov’s exceptionally florid account of food poisoning, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming malaise that had engulfed me — somehow, a physical illness had completely colored my psychoemotional reality.

This experience, of course, is far from uncommon. Long before scientists began shedding light on how our minds and bodies actually affect one another, an intuitive understanding of this dialogue between the body and the emotions, or feelings, emerged and permeated our very language: We use “feeling sick” as a grab-bag term for both the sensory symptoms — fever, fatigue, nausea — and the psychological malaise, woven of emotions like sadness and apathy.

Pre-modern medicine, in fact, has recognized this link between disease and emotion for millennia. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian Ayurvedic physicians all enlisted the theory of the four humors — blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm — in their healing practices, believing that imbalances in these four visible secretions of the body caused disease and were themselves often caused by the emotions. These beliefs are fossilized in our present language — melancholy comes from the Latin words for “black” (melan) and “bitter bile” (choler), and we think of a melancholic person as gloomy or embittered; a phlegmatic person is languid and impassive, for phlegm makes one lethargic.

Chart of the four humors from a 1495 medical textbook by Johannes de Ketham

And then French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes came along in the seventeenth century, taking it upon himself to eradicate the superstitions that fueled the religious wars of the era by planting the seed of rationalism. But the very tenets that laid the foundation of modern science — the idea that truth comes only from what can be visibly ascertained and proven beyond doubt — severed this link between the physical body and the emotions; those mysterious and fleeting forces, the biological basis of which the tools of modern neuroscience are only just beginning to understand, seemed to exist entirely outside the realm of what could be examined with the tools of rationalism.

For nearly three centuries, the idea that our emotions could impact our physical health remained scientific taboo — setting out to fight one type of dogma, Descartes had inadvertently created another, which we’re only just beginning to shake off. It was only in the 1950s that Austrian-Canadian physician and physiologist Hans Selye pioneered the notion of stress as we now know it today, drawing the scientific community’s attention to the effects of stress on physical health and popularizing the concept around the world. (In addition to his scientific dedication, Selye also understood the branding component of any successful movement and worked tirelessly to include the word itself in dictionaries around the world; today, “stress” is perhaps the word pronounced most similarly in the greatest number of major languages.)

But no researcher has done more to illuminate the invisible threads that weave mind and body together than Dr. Esther Sternberg. Her groundbreaking work on the link between the central nervous system and the immune system, exploring how immune molecules made in the blood can trigger brain function that profoundly affects our emotions, has revolutionized our understanding of the integrated being we call a human self. In the immeasurably revelatory The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (public library), Sternberg examines the interplay of our emotions and our physical health, mediated by that seemingly nebulous yet, it turns out, remarkably concrete experience called stress.

Esther Sternberg by Steve Barrett

With an eye to modern medicine’s advances in cellular and molecular biology, which have made it possible to measure how our nervous system and our hormones affect our susceptibility to diseases as varied as depression, arthritis, AIDS, and chronic fatigue syndrome, Sternberg writes:

By parsing these chemical intermediaries, we can begin to understand the biological underpinnings of how emotions affect diseases…

The same parts of the brain that control the stress response … play an important role in susceptibility and resistance to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. And since it is these parts of the brain that also play a role in depression, we can begin to understand why it is that many patients with inflammatory diseases may also experience depression at different times in their lives… Rather than seeing the psyche as the source of such illnesses, we are discovering that while feelings don’t directly cause or cure disease, the biological mechanisms underlying them may cause or contribute to disease. Thus, many of the nerve pathways and molecules underlying both psychological responses and inflammatory disease are the same, making predisposition to one set of illnesses likely to go along with predisposition to the other. The questions need to be rephrased, therefore, to ask which of the many components that work together to create emotions also affect that other constellation of biological events, immune responses, which come together to fight or to cause disease. Rather than asking if depressing thoughts can cause an illness of the body, we need to ask what the molecules and nerve pathways are that cause depressing thoughts. And then we need to ask whether these affect the cells and molecules that cause disease.

[…]

We are even beginning to sort out how emotional memories reach the parts of the brain that control the hormonal stress response, and how such emotions can ultimately affect the workings of the immune system and thus affect illnesses as disparate as arthritis and cancer. We are also beginning to piece together how signals from the immune system can affect the brain and the emotional and physical responses it controls: the molecular basis of feeling sick. In all this, the boundaries between mind and body are beginning to blur.

Indeed, the relationship between memory, emotion, and stress is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Sternberg’s work. She considers how we deal with the constant swirl of inputs and outputs as we move through the world, barraged by a stream of stimuli and sensations:

Every minute of the day and night we feel thousands of sensations that might trigger a positive emotion such as happiness, or a negative emotion such as sadness, or no emotion at all: a trace of perfume, a light touch, a fleeting shadow, a strain of music. And there are thousands of physiological responses, such as palpitations or sweating, that can equally accompany positive emotions such as love, or negative emotions such as fear, or can happen without any emotional tinge at all. What makes these sensory inputs and physiological outputs emotions is the charge that gets added to them somehow, somewhere in our brains. Emotions in their fullest sense comprise all of these components. Each can lead into the black box and produce an emotional experience, or something in the black box can lead out to an emotional response that seems to come from nowhere.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Memory, it turns out, is one of the major factors mediating the dialogue between sensation and emotional experience. Our memories of past experience become encoded into triggers that act as switchers on the rail of psychoemotional response, directing the incoming train of present experience in the direction of one emotional destination or another.

Sternberg writes:

Mood is not homogeneous like cream soup. It is more like Swiss cheese, filled with holes. The triggers are highly specific, tripped by sudden trails of memory: a faint fragrance, a few bars of a tune, a vague silhouette that tapped into a sad memory buried deep, but not completely erased. These sensory inputs from the moment float through layers of time in the parts of the brain that control memory, and they pull out with them not only reminders of sense but also trails of the emotions that were first connected to the memory. These memories become connected to emotions, which are processed in other parts of the brain: the amygdala for fear, the nucleus accumbens for pleasure — those same parts that the anatomists had named for their shapes. And these emotional brain centers are linked by nerve pathways to the sensory parts of the brain and to the frontal lobe and hippocampus — the coordinating centers of thought and memory.

The same sensory input can trigger a negative emotion or a positive one, depending on the memories associated with it.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

This is where stress comes in — much like memory mediates how we interpret and respond to various experiences, a complex set of biological and psychological factors determine how we respond to stress. Some types of stress can be stimulating and invigorating, mobilizing us into action and creative potency; others can be draining and incapacitating, leaving us frustrated and hopeless. This dichotomy of good vs. bad stress, Sternberg notes, is determined by the biology undergirding our feelings — by the dose and duration of the stress hormones secreted by the body in response to the stressful stimulus. She explains the neurobiological machinery behind this response:

As soon as the stressful event occurs, it triggers the release of the cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal hormones — the brain’s stress response. It also triggers the adrenal glands to release epinephrine, or adrenaline, and the sympathetic nerves to squirt out the adrenaline-like chemical norepinephrine all over the body: nerves that wire the heart, and gut, and skin. So, the heart is driven to beat faster, the fine hairs of your skin stand up, you sweat, you may feel nausea or the urge to defecate. But your attention is focused, your vision becomes crystal clear, a surge of power helps you run — these same chemicals released from nerves make blood flow to your muscles, preparing you to sprint.

All this occurs quickly. If you were to measure the stress hormones in your blood or saliva, they would already be increased within three minutes of the event. In experimental psychology tests, playing a fast-paced video game will make salivary cortisol increase and norepinephrine spill over into venous blood almost as soon as the virtual battle begins. But if you prolong the stress, by being unable to control it or by making it too potent or long-lived, and these hormones and chemicals still continue to pump out from nerves and glands, then the same molecules that mobilized you for the short haul now debilitate you.

These effects of stress exist on a bell curve — that is, some is good, but too much becomes bad: As the nervous system secretes more and more stress hormones, performance increases, but up to a point; after that tipping point, performance begins to suffer as the hormones continue to flow. What makes stress “bad” — that is, what makes it render us more pervious to disease — is the disparity between the nervous system and immune system’s respective pace. Sternberg explains:

The nervous system and the hormonal stress response react to a stimulus in milliseconds, seconds, or minutes. The immune system takes parts of hours or days. It takes much longer than two minutes for immune cells to mobilize and respond to an invader, so it is unlikely that a single, even powerful, short-lived stress on the order of moments could have much of an effect on immune responses. However, when the stress turns chronic, immune defenses begin to be impaired. As the stressful stimulus hammers on, stress hormones and chemicals continue to pump out. Immune cells floating in this milieu in blood, or passing through the spleen, or growing up in thymic nurseries never have a chance to recover from the unabated rush of cortisol. Since cortisol shuts down immune cells’ responses, shifting them to a muted form, less able to react to foreign triggers, in the context of continued stress we are less able to defend and fight when faced with new invaders. And so, if you are exposed to, say, a flu or common cold virus when you are chronically stressed out, your immune system is less able to react and you become more susceptible to that infection.

Illustration from 'Donald and the...' by Edward Gorey. Click image for more.

Extended exposure to stress, especially to a variety of stressors at the same time — any combination from the vast existential menu of life-events like moving, divorce, a demanding job, the loss of a loved one, and even ongoing childcare — adds up a state of extreme exhaustion that leads to what we call burnout.

Sternberg writes:

Members of certain professions are more prone to burnout than others — nurses and teachers, for example, are among those at highest risk. These professionals are faced daily with caregiving situations in their work lives, often with inadequate pay, inadequate help in their jobs, and with too many patients or students in their charge. Some studies are beginning to show that burnt-out patients may have not only psychological burnout, but also physiological burnout: a flattened cortisol response and inability to respond to any stress with even a slight burst of cortisol. In other words, chronic unrelenting stress can change the stress response itself. And it can change other hormone systems in the body as well.

One of the most profound such changes affects the reproductive system — extended periods of stress can shut down the secretion of reproductive hormones in both men and women, resulting in lower fertility. But the effects are especially perilous for women — recurring and extended episodes of depression result in permanent changes in bone structure, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. In other words, we register stress literally in our bones.

Art from 'Evolution' by Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu. Click image for more.

But stress isn’t a direct causal function of the circumstances we’re in — what either amplifies or ameliorates our experience of stress is, once again, memory. Sternberg writes:

Our perception of stress, and therefore our response to it, is an ever-changing thing that depends a great deal on the circumstances and settings in which we find ourselves. It depends on previous experience and knowledge, as well as on the actual event that has occurred. And it depends on memory, too.

The most acute manifestation of how memory modulates stress is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. For striking evidence of how memory encodes past experience into triggers, which then catalyze present experience, Sternberg points to research by psychologist Rachel Yehuda, who found both Holocaust survivors and their first-degree relatives — that is, children and siblings — exhibited a similar hormonal stress response.

This, Sternberg points out, could be a combination of nature and nurture — the survivors, as young parents for whom the trauma was still fresh, may well have subconsciously taught their children a common style of stress-responsiveness; but it’s also possible that these automatic hormonal stress responses permanently changed the parents’ biology and were transmitted via DNA to their children. Once again, memory encodes stress into our very bodies. Sternberg considers the broader implications:

Stress need not be on the order of war, rape, or the Holocaust to trigger at least some elements of PTSD. Common stresses that we all experience can trigger the emotional memory of a stressful circumstance — and all its accompanying physiological responses. Prolonged stress — such as divorce, a hostile workplace, the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one — can all trigger elements of PTSD.

Among the major stressors — which include life-events expected to be on the list, such as divorce and the death of a loved one — is also one somewhat unexpected situation, at least to those who haven’t undergone it: moving. Sternberg considers the commonalities between something as devastating as death and something as mundane as moving:

One is certainly loss — the loss of someone or something familiar. Another is novelty — finding oneself in a new and unfamiliar place because of the loss. Together these amount to change: moving away from something one knows and toward something one doesn’t.

[…]

An unfamiliar environment is a universal stressor to nearly all species, no matter how developed or undeveloped.

In the remainder of the thoroughly illuminating The Balance Within, Sternberg goes on to explore the role of interpersonal relationships in both contributing to stress and shielding us from it, how the immune system changes our moods, and what we can do to harness these neurobiological insights in alleviating our experience of the stressors with which every human life is strewn.

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20 JULY, 2015

The Most Beautiful Illustrations from 200 Years of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

By:

Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, Edward Gorey, David Hockney, Wanda Gág, Shaun Tan, and more.

In his timeless meditation on fantasy and the psychology of fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children.” The sentiment has since been echoed by generations of beloved storytellers: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White told The Paris Review. “You have to write up, not down.” Neil Gaiman argued that protecting children from the dark does them a grave disservice. “I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

Perhaps more than anything else, this respect for children’s inherent intelligence and their ability to sit with difficult emotions is what makes the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm so enduringly enchanting. In their original conception, they broke with convention in other ways as well — rather than moralistic or didactic, they were beautifully blunt and unaffected, celebratory of poetry’s ennobling effect on the spirit. The brothers wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1812 that the storytelling between the covers was intended “to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it.”

Their beloved stories have pleasured the popular imagination for two centuries and have inspired generations of artists to continually reinterpret and reimagine them. Gathered here — after similar collections of the world’s most beautiful illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit — are the finest and most culturally notable such Grimm reimaginings of which I’m aware.

EDWARD GOREY (1972–1973)

In the early 1970s, Edward Gorey — creator of grim alphabets, quirky children’s books, naughty treats for grown-ups, and little-known vintage covers for literary classics — brought his aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The two beloved Grimm tales, along with the Cornish folk classic Jack the Giant-Killer, charmingly retold by James Donnelly and illustrated by Gorey, were eventually collected by Pomegranate in the 2010 gem Three Classic Children’s Stories (public library).

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

See more here.

MAURICE SENDAK (1973)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Maurice Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by Pulitzer-winning novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).

That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Goblins

Bearskin

The Goblins

To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist’s chronic poor health, legendary children’s book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — Sendak’s editor and his greatest champion — beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: “For heaven’s sake take care of yourself on this trip.”

The Twelve Huntsmen

The Golden Bird

Many-Fur

The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs

Ferdinand Faithful and Ferdinand Unfaithful

The Goblins

See more here.

LISBETH ZWERGER (2012)

Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger is among the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of our time. She has lent her immeasurable talent to such classics as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant in 1984, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1996, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1999. Zwerger brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), published in 2012 and translated by Anthea Bell.

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche. There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

Hans My Hedgehog

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Bremen Town Musicians

Briar Rose

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

See more here.

WANDA GÁG (1936)

Although the 1936 illustrations for the Grimm tales by Wanda Gág are not necessarily the most visually captivating by contemporary standards, they are perhaps the most culturally significant for a number of reasons. Gág was a pioneering artist, author, printmaker, translator, and entrepreneur, who began her life in poverty as an incredibly precocious child. By the time she was eleven, she was running a successful business selling her art to feed her seven siblings after their father’s death. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company. She would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak.

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a year after she created the world’s first feminist children’s book, Gág was already an icon in her own right. But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as “America’s first female artist” — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was Gág’s retelling of that proto-feminist folktale, which she had learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother, that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…

Cinderella

Cinderella

Doctor Know-It-All

Six Servants

The Three Brothers

Clever Elsie

See more, including Gág’s remarkably dedicated process, here.

SHAUN TAN (2012)

Shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Australian artist and author Shaun Tan — creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival — about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

See more here.

DAVID HOCKNEY (1970)

In 1970, the British Royal Academy of Arts published Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with Illustrations by David Hockney (public library). Tucked between the beautiful red fabric-bound covers are the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”

'The boy hidden in an egg' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in a fish' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The cook' (Fundevogel)

'The older Rapunzel' (Rapunzel)

'A black cat leaping' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Riding around on a cooking spoon' (Rumpelstilzchen)

See more here.

ANDREA DEZSÖ (2014)

What most of us know as the Grimm fairy tales today are actually the tales of the seventh and final edition the brothers published in 1857 — a version dramatically different from the one Jacob and Wilhelm first penned forty-six years earlier, when both were still in their twenties. The prominent Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes argues that the original 1812 edition is “just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

Zippes brings that seminal first edition to life in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), featuring breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

'The Three Sisters'

'The Wild Man'

'Hans My Hedgehog'

'The Devil in the Green Coat'

'Herr Fix-It-Up'

'Okerlo'

See more, including my interview with Dezsö, here.

SYBILLE SCHENKER (2014)

In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and the East-West masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, yet something wholly original.

Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.

See more here.

LORENZO MATTOTTI (2014)

Neil Gaiman thinks a great deal, and with great insight, about what makes stories last. It is hardly surprising, then, that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm would bewitch his imagination both as a storyteller and as a philosopher of storytelling. More than a decade after the publication of his widely beloved book Coraline, Gaiman brings this spirit of dark delight to his magnificent adaptation of the Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library).

Accompanying Gaiman’s beautiful words, which speak to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, are befittingly beautiful illustrations by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti — the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

See more, including Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly on what makes fairy tales endure, here.

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17 JULY, 2015

The Illustrated Life of Trailblazing Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Paved the Way for Women in Media

By:

A warm celebration of the fearless pioneer who championed journalists’ responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

As a lover of picture-book biographies of cultural icons and an ardent admirer of trailblazing journalist, proto-feminist, and daring media stuntwoman Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922), I was thrilled to come upon The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter (public library) by writer and artist Bonnie Christensen.

In elegant prose and beautiful illustrations that invoke the aesthetic of editorial art from Bly’s era, Christensen tells the story of one of the most remarkable humans our world has ever produced.

We meet young Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, long before she took the pen name Nelly Bly, in her native Pennsylvania, where her mother’s tumultuous second marriage instills in the young girl a longing for self-reliance. To render herself impervious to similar tumult, she decides to pursue an independent career.

We follow her as she impresses a newspaper editor into giving her a job after she writes her magnificent letter to a patronizing chauvinist at the age of only twenty.

As she rises up the ranks of journalism, she decides to move to the profession’s epicenter: New York City, a place as competitive then as it is now.

It is there that she writes her now-legendary exposé on asylum abuse for The World — one of the most courageous feats of investigative journalism ever performed, which nearly cost Bly her life, went viral by the era’s standards, resulted in a grand jury investigation, and forever changed how we treat the mentally ill.

Next, Bly plunges into an equally yet very differently daring assignment — her astonishing race around the world in under eighty days, with nothing more than a well-tailored dress and a duffle bag.

Christensen writes:

On January 25, 1890 — seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after the start of her journey — Nellie Bly set foot in the Jersey City train station. A huge, cheering throng greeted her. Cannons roared. “The American girl will no longer be misunderstood,” declared the mayor. “She will be recognized as pushing and determined, independent, able to take care of herself wherever she may go.” Nellie Bly had won much more than her race against the clock… The newspaper described her as “the best known and most widely talked of young woman on earth today.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Her picture appeared on games, toys, cigars, soaps, and medicines. A racehorse, hotel, and train were named after her. The name Nellie Bly was heard and recognized everywhere.

To be sure, Bly’s was not the kind of vacant fame associated with the notion of popular celebrity — she was widely celebrated for the monumental work she did and the selfless spirit in which she did it. Until her last breath, Bly continued to champion the rights of women and the working class. When her industrialist husband died, she transformed his manufacturing empire into a pioneering model of socially conscious business, a mecca of fair wages and humane working conditions amid an era that habitually denied workers both. Half a century before Hedy Lamarr rose to fame as one of history’s most prominent women inventors, Bly invented the first steel barrel — one of twenty-six inventions for which she held patents by the end of her life.

Christensen writes:

During World War I, Nellie Bly, at fifty, was the first woman journalist to report from the Eastern Front. After the war she returned to New York City, where she wrote a column for the New York Journal and crusaded tirelessly to find permanent homes for orphans.

Although she was in and out of the hospital from exhaustion, Nellie Bly continued her work, writing that each individual has a moral responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

Complement Christensen’s intelligent and inspiring The Daring Nellie Bly with Bly’s groundbreaking Ten Days at the Mad-House and an illustrated field guide to packing like the pioneering journalist, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other exceptional humans: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Paul Gauguin, and more.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.